Manitoba·Point of View

'This pandemic, too, shall pass': A retiring teacher's bittersweet goodbye to grad class of 2020

Kelvin High School teacher Raymond Sokalski, who is set to retire at the end of this school year, has an affectionate goodbye to graduating students during "epic days of history in the making."

'Dear students: What can I say to encourage you, in the midst of a pandemic?' asks veteran Kelvin teacher

Kelvin High School teacher Ray Sokalski, shown here with his sons, is wrapping up his career during the COVID-19 pandemic. 'This is certainly not how I pictured my last semester in the classroom,' he says. (Submitted by Raymond Sokalski)

Dear students,

As many of you know, this is my last year at École secondaire Kelvin, my final year as a teacher.

It wasn't supposed to end like this.   

But as the past few weeks have taught us, "plans" are at best, good intentions for the future, subject to change in these epic days of History-in-the-Making.  

This is certainly not how I pictured my last semester in the classroom, because I am — we all are — literally no longer in the classroom, for starters!

For those students who were in the home stretch of their first year at Kelvin, this turn of events must seem bewildering.  

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

No bells, no bulky binders stuffed in knapsacks, no dodging countless others in crowded hallways.  

In our social studies classes, no "gallery walks" to see what research posters your classmates created about our immigrant communities, no stories about newcomers to Canada and what they revealed in their interviews. 

No parliamentary debates on bills like a third federal chamber for First Peoples or on a municipal by-law to ban plastic products.  

My heart really goes out to those students I have known the longest — the students who are going to graduate this year.- Raymond Sokalski

Actually, I'm sure some of you are thrilled that you won't have to stand up in front of your peers and hold forth on something you may not even believe, for the sake of an academic discipline!  

And for those of you in Grade 11 Histoire canadienne, what will become of our re-creation of the discussions that led to Treaty No. 5 at Norway House?  

Our bike ride through the Exchange District to learn about the Winnipeg General Strike?  

Raymond Sokalski, seated bottom right, with students in 2010 on 'one of our traditional Kelvin bike tours of the Exchange, St. Boniface and the [legislature] grounds.' (Submitted by Raymond Sokalski)

These are moments that you may not get to experience, and ones I really looked forward to sharing with you.  

But my heart really goes out to those students I have known the longest —the students who are going to graduate from high school this year.  

'Nothing we humans plan is for certain'

What can I say?  

Every one of you must have a long list of regrets, and (if we're honest) your list may even include a few items you're relieved about.  

My list and yours likely have several items in common, soaking up those last daily rituals that have marked our lives for years — Spirit Week, lunches in the hallways, nail-biting final matches, fire drills in frigid weather.

And then, of course, graduation.

This was to be my last year to pore over each of your names in preparation for the grad ceremony. 

In June, I check in with many of you, to make sure that each syllable in your name is pronounced just right as I announce you when you cross the stage to receive your diploma. 

Ray Sokalski in an old yearbook photo: "It is certainly our wish as parents, laugh at the good memories and to lament with you the less-than-happy times." (Submitted by Raymond Sokalski)

For years, I have revelled in the beauty of each name given to you at birth, or adopted by you with awakened awareness, and I love the look of surprise elicited as I enunciate your full name "just the way your grandparents would say it," or just the way you have always wanted it said.  

May that still happen!  

But what if it doesn't?  

What if that moment and all the other ones associated with your final year at school, those days, those weeks, those exams and activities that have been mandated out of existence, for the greater good — what if they do not occur?  

Well, we can say this:  

Nothing we humans plan is for certain.  

It is certainly our wish as parents, teachers, family and friends, to gather together to celebrate your achievements and your struggles, to laugh at the good memories and to lament with you the less-than-happy times.

In these days of social distancing, I've had a chance look back over snapshots on paper and in pixels taken over the course of my 30 years with students. 

Raymond Sokalski with Kelvin's 2019 provincial championship Ethics Bowl team. (Submitted by Raymond Sokalski)

I see grinning faces grouped in hallways full of lockers or classrooms full of posters; faces full of wonder at a first encounter with an elephant or a waterfall, an ancient ruin or a local tombstone; expressions of shock, dismay and determination captured during moments of high drama in role plays, conferences and competitions.  

Each face represents a student — a person — with likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies.  

All of them in the midst of becoming more themselves.

During this time of History-in-the-Making, we have a rare opportunity to see how crisis will mould us — both as individuals and as a society — into what we might not have planned on becoming.  

Be curious and inquisitive — and thoroughly wash your hands!- Raymond Sokalski

My wish is that we recognize more opportunities to grow, to be curious about our world and all the living things within it.  

You who are young, have already been teaching us older ones lessons about commitment and perseverance for a greater good — I need only mention Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafsai, Craig Kielberger, among other youth.  

We have already called on you to help us connect with each other virtually — even just to help troubleshoot a problem with our Wi-Fi!  

We, the boomers, are realizing in greater numbers that we are borrowing this Creation we call Earth from our descendants, just as much as we inherit it from our ancestors.

What can I say to encourage you, in the midst of a pandemic?  

I would say:  

Be curious and inquisitive, remain open and inclusive, be vigilant for opportunities to grow by serving others — while you repeatedly and thoroughly wash your hands!  

And do not lose hold of the marvel that is our planet; get out, as you are able, into nature and learn about its beauty and its power and the forces that shape it.  

Like all things, this pandemic, too, shall pass.  

And in the meantime?  

Keep a record of your thoughts in this time of History-in-the-Making; a virtual (or real!) scrapbook of plans made and unmade, images and quotes, sound clips and signs of this time.  

Those who come after will find these, your reflections, and learn from what you have learned about yourself and your world, as you navigated these days of monotony and monumental change.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Raymond Sokalski is a sciences humaines/social studies teacher with École secondaire Kelvin High School in WInnipeg.